Is file sharing theft?

Asking “Is file sharing theft?” is a bit like asking “Is driving a car murder?” (If during the course of a drive you intentionally run somebody down with your car in an effort to kill them and they die, yes, of course it’s murder … but otherwise, no.)

File sharing is, as a general concept, not a problem. It’s a perfectly legal thing to do if you either own the materials you’re sharing or have the right to share them because they’re in the public domain or the owner has granted permission for them to be shared.

The real question is ….

Is file sharing other peoples’ intellectual property theft?

Now we’re getting down to business!

What is theft?

Theft, all by itself, is a general term that is not given a technical legal definition at the federal level in the U.S. (some states do define it; others don’t). It’s often used synonymously with larceny (which is defined technically, which we’ll get to in a minute).

The ‘Lectric Law Library Lexicon defines theft as commonly meaning to secretly and dishonestly take someone else’s property (in other words, steal it) for the sake of money (either to sell the property or to simply avoid paying for it). It further defines theft-bote as being the crime of knowingly receiving stolen property from a thief.

Thus, both stealing an item and receiving stolen items can be considered forms of theft under those definitions.

The Oxford Dictionary of Law (which covers British law, which is similar but by no means identical to U.S. law) defines “theft” as “The dishonest appropriation of property belonging to someone else with the intention of keeping it permanently.”

Criminologist Thomas O’Connor states that “all modern theft laws have their origins in the ancient law of larceny.”

He further says that:

Larceny is the wrongful taking and carrying away of personal property which is in the possession of another with the intent to convert it or permanently deprive the owner thereof.

Okay, so what’s larceny? And what has it got to do with filesharing?

According to O’Connor and other sources, classic criminal larceny involves:

  1. Wrongfully taking something from someone else (stealing) To do this you have to have control over the object — but it doesn’t have to be actual physical control. You can claim that a book on a shelf is yours and sell it to someone else. When the person walks off with the book they think they’ve legitimately purchased, they have not committed larceny, but you have. When an item has been taken for personal use, a common defense is to claim that the person was only “borrowing” the item and intended to return it. In that case, it’s up to the court to decide whether the evidence surrounding the incident indicates an intent to steal or a real, honest intent to return the item.
    • The act of ripping and making a copyrighted MP3 available for upload has been seen by the courts as wrongfully taking control of an intellectual property. Once other anonymous users have downloaded copies, there’s no feasible way to “give it back” to the rightful owner. On the downloading side, however, a user who downloads an illegal copy, tries it out, and then deletes that copy could arguably be seen as just having “borrowed” it.
  2. Taking the item away from the place it was stolen (asportation) There’s a lot of variance in how this is interpreted. For instance, in some states, a person can be convicted of shoplifting if they are observed taking and sequestering an item but abandon it in the store before they are apprehended. Theft laws also cover people who can’t really asportate anything in a legal sense, such as a parking lot attendant who is given a customer’s keys and then goes for an extended joyride in the car.
    • Transferring a file to a fileshare server certainly seems to fulfill the broad asportation criteria, as does downloading it.
  3. The stolen item being personal property. According to modern laws, personal property can be real property (land, houses, etc.), tangible property (moveable things like cars), services, information, intellectual property, and even contraband. Under the vast majority of legal systems, the value of the item determines whether the act of stealing it is considered a misdemeanor, felony, or civil matter.
    • Courts have well and thoroughly upheld that reproduction rights to things like songs and stories and art are valid intellectual properties. Thus, the extent of the financial damage to the holder of the copyright determines whether or not the case would be pursued as a felony, misdemeanor, or civil action.
  4. The item being in the posession of the thief. Most laws require the owner of the item to prove that it was taken without their consent, that they can identify the object as being theirs, and that they did not abandon the item (thus creating a situation in which a reasonable person might think the property was free to whomever wanted to take it).
    • If you’ve made an illegal copy of an intellectual property and make it available for upload, you are quite obviously in possession of it. However, you might be excused if you legitimately thought the intellectual property was abandoned (for instance, because it was out of print) or in the public domain due to a lack of a copyright statement.
  5. Taking the item with the intent to sell it, gain a reward for its return, or to permanently deprive the owner of it. The “permanent deprivation” part is a little complicated. Courts have ruled that cases like taking a car temporarily for joyriding constitute larceny. Why? The item has been taken recklessly without permission, and the owner stands a strong chance of suffering some kind of financial loss due to the item being damaged while in the thief’s control. So, even if the thief always intended to return the item, the risk of permanent loss to the owner makes it larceny.

    In other words, larceny (theft) either permanently deprives or has a strong risk of permanently depriving the rightful owner of money.

As I mentioned previously, some U.S. state laws explicitly define theft. For instance, the Ohio Revised Code defines theft thusly:

2913.02. Theft. (A) No person, with purpose to deprive the owner of property or services, shall knowingly obtain or exert control over either the property or services in any of the following ways:

(1) Without the consent of the owner or person authorized to give consent;

(2) Beyond the scope of the express or implied consent of the owner or person authorized to give consent;

(3) By deception;

(4) By threat;

(5) By intimidation.

(B) (1) Whoever violates this section is guilty of theft.

Ohio law further classes the following larcenous crimes as being forms of theft, several of which apply to file sharing:

  • 2913.03. Unauthorized use of a vehicle.
  • 2913.04. Unauthorized use of property; computer, cable, or telecommunication property or service.
  • 2913.041. Possession or sale of unauthorized cable television device.
  • 2913.06. Unlawful use of telecommunications device.
  • 2913.07. Motion picture piracy.


But wait! My filesharing isn’t depriving the owner of anything! They can still do what they want with it!

Or, as a pro-filesharing user wrote in an online journal: “Steal an idea, they still have their idea, but now you have it too.”

Not so fast, pilgrim.

First of all, we’re not talking about ideas — ideas can’t be copyrighted. Art and stories and songs contain ideas, convey ideas, but they are not in and of themselves ideas.

Arguing that it’s okay to trade a song because it’s just an idea is like saying it’s okay to sell a human being because we’re just nitrogen (hey, humans contain nitrogen, and they give off nitrogen, so they’re nitrogen, right?).

Second, refer to the part in #5 above about the larcenous nature of taking a car for joyriding. Now, think about identity theft, a well-recognized but very new form of theft.

If someone commits identity theft against me, I still have my actual identity. My face and fingerprints are still on my person. My friends and employer still recognize me.

I still have my identity, and now somebody else has it too … and they’re racking up credit card bills in my name. It’s going to cost me a lot of time and money (because, after all, time is money) to get it all stopped.

Even if the identity thief figures her actions are harmless because the credit card companies will surely forgive my debt once they figure out I couldn’t have made the purchases — it’s still theft because it’s depriving me of money.

So, yeah, in the end it’s all about money. And most writers, musicians, and artists stand to make money in royalties off sales of individual copies of their work, so every copy that gets downloaded off a filesharing server represents a potentially lost sale. Furthermore, a work’s resale value may be diminished; publishers release work they expect to profit from, and if they see that the work is rampantly available via filesharing and people are getting it for free, they may question the profit in re-releasing the work.

The actual ramifications of lost sales from filesharing are hard to determine, of course. Some quantity of people who download a PDF or MP3 or EXE probably never would have purchased a legitimate copy of the property in a store; either they really were too damn broke, or they just weren’t interested enough to buy but were curious enough to download. But many people fileshare because it’s free and convenient, and presumably they do represent lost royalties to the creator.

However, just because the financial loss from a theft is miniscule doesn’t mean it’s not a theft. If I pocket a 5-cent piece of bubblegum in a candy store, the store owner may never even realize the gum is gone. But I still stole it, and I can’t argue otherwise. Even though my theft is trivial, I am still a thief.

Making unauthorized copies of a protected intellectual property such as a song, book, or game available on a filesharing server is arguably a form of theft theft because it conforms to the U.S. legal requirements of larceny. No breaking and entering or forcible boarding need be involved to become a thief.

(Congress could of course pass a law at any time explicitly excluding filesharing copyright violations from being considered larceny in any way, and in that case illegal filesharing might be a form of theft in a moral sense but not in a commonlaw sense. Laws are set in paper rather than stone and are constantly being renegotiated and changed. That’s why the world has so many lawyers.)


The Morality of Filesharing (or, Legal, schmegal, filesharing isn’t wrong, and you can’t make me believe otherwise!)

We are all ultimately responsible for the ethical decisions we make. Hundreds of teeny-tiny little events that are technically crimes go on all the time, unnoticed amongst the great raw screaming chunks of misery that represent larger crimes like armed robbery, rape and murder.

Circumstances can make almost any crime an unfortunate necessity or even a moral good. If I have no money, and my child is starving, I will steal milk for her if I have to, because the needs of my child outweigh my need to be a law-abiding citizen and not harm the store owner.

If I must learn Filemaker Pro to get a job I desperately need and simply haven’t the money for a legitimate copy, I will download it and feel bad later when I’ve got the job.

There’s a moral allowance for genuine human need.

There’s also a moral legitimacy for filesharing in the name of civil disobedience in some cases. Copyright laws are supposed to balance the public good of being able to freely access and obtain artistic and intellectual materials with the creator’s right to control those materials. A strong argument can be made that current laws have gone well past protecting creators — and in some instances completely fail to protect creators — and instead offer an unreasonably long corporate monopoly on intellectual property.

For instance, current laws have created a situation in which many musicians end up signing all their rights over to a music company in exchange for releasing their work. The Sonny Bono Copyright Extension Act is widely seen as a move pandering to Disney and other corporations that violates the spirit of the original laws. And many feel that the Digital Millenium Copyright Act is bad lawmaking on several counts.

There are quite a lot of materials out there that, while technically copyrighted, have been functionally abandoned. The creators are dead or no longer have rights to their own work, the work is out of print, and the copyright is owned by a corporation that is indifferent to making the work available for sale at a reasonable price.

In such cases, file sharing functionally abandoned materials arguably does provide a benefit to the public and also is defendable under the 4th clause of the larceny rules above.

There’s also a moral allowance for using filesharing to obtain digital copies of work you already purchased in a hardcopy or analog format. There’s even a borderline slippery-slope argument with some ethical (but no legal) grounding that it’s okay to download copies of cable channel TV shows if you subscribed to those channels when the episodes aired. In both those instances, you could have made copies of the materials for personal “backup” use (which is a legitimate thing to do) but the person who has helpfully uploaded the materials is still violating the law. It’s an imperfect world.

But there isn’t really any moral allowance for simply wanting to have something without paying for it.

Songs and art and books don’t grow on trees … although seeing them everywhere might lead you to believe that they do.

Most people see the glitz and glamorous lifestyles of the latest vapid pop sensation, or hear about the millions of dollars Stephen King just donated to a charity, and they blithely think that all artists, musicians, and writers make plenty of money and a little filesharing surely isn’t going to hurt. Besides, hey, they’re getting exposure to new people, and they should feel flattered that people think their stuff is worth stealing.

The reality is that most writers, artists, and musicians work hard and don’t get a lot of money for what they do. The flattery of seeing one’s work on a filesharing server rubs off very quickly if one doesn’t have enough money to pay the electric bill that month.

The reality is that artists, writers, and musicians have to pay their bills just like everyone else. They need money to survive — it’s a rare landlord or utility company that will take books and CDs in trade.

Most people create art, music, or stories because they need to express themselves. And for most creators, the whole point of being able to make a living off their creative endeavors is to enable them to keep creating. If they have to take another job to make their bills, the time spent at their day job is time and energy that can’t be put to creating new songs or stories or pictures.

Thus, if professional artists, writers, and musicians are unable to make enough money off their work to live on — they will produce less and less creative work. If Stephen King hadn’t been able to make a living with his writing, he’d have had to keep being a low-paid, overworked teacher. We’d have gotten Carrie, certainly, and probably The Shining and maybe even The Stand. But what about later, more sophisticated work like The Green Mile and The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon? Those very well might not exist.

In the end, the deprivation caused by mass filesharing might really end up being manifested as less and less quality entertainment available to consumers.

If you think books and songs and movies are overpriced, visit your local library (they might even buy new items they don’t carry you if you and your friends request the materials), or buy used copies. And remember, you and like-minded friends can always try making your own for each other.

Hey! What about libraries? How come they get to exist?

Public libraries are run on a combination of tax-derived funding and donations. Their mission is to make books (and to a lesser extent audio and video works) available to everyone in their community.

Every book you find in a library has been legitimately purchased or donated by someone else who bought the book. In short, every copy represents a sale and thus money to the copyright holder. The First Sale Doctrine makes it perfectly legal to lend out a legitimate physical copy of a book, movie, or CD. When a book circulates, it goes out to one person who borrows it for individual or family reading, keeps it for a few weeks, and returns it. The book keeps circulating on this kind of individual basis until it is too worn to lend; then it is replaced with another paid-for book or sold in a booksale fundraiser. A popular library book might be read by 25 people in a year.

Contrast this with illegal fileshared copies of the book. I have seen books posted on IRC that haven’t yet gone to press — in short, somebody with access to the publishing company uploaded an illegal copy. Thus, the shared file doesn’t represent a sale at all. And in the case of a person uploading a copy of a legitimately-purchased electronic book, the First Sale Doctrine does not apply because the intellectual content has been duplicated without permission.

A popular prerelease book might be downloaded by 25 people in just a few hours. And once those hundreds of people have downloaded the PDF — what incentive do they have to actually buy the book, even if they enjoyed it and would have otherwise bought it? Very little, unless they understand the hard work the writer and publisher put into making the book. The sheer numbers make permanent financial losses a very real possibility.

But, as Voltaire said, “No snowflake in an avalanche ever feels responsible.”

Do as your conscience guides you. Just don’t be confused or in denial about what you’re doing.


  • A conversation with OSU law professor Sheldon W. Halpern
  • The Oxford Dictionary of Law
  • ‘Lectric Law Library Lexicon entry at
  • Anderson’s Online Revised Code at
  • Theft Law: crimes Against Property & Hybrid Crimes by Thomas R. O’Connor at


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